TANANA — A rotating crew of troopers and village public safety officers from around Alaska have been working in Tanana this week. 

They’re filling in for their two fellow officers gunned down May 1 as well as for the town’s usual village public safety officer who was present at the shooting and is on leave this week. 

Despite the investigation’s focus on a small anti-law-enforcement fringe, the visiting police have largely been welcomed in the Yukon River community of about 240 people. 

James Hoelscher, a village public safety officer from Hooper Bay, came more than 500 miles from his community in southwest Alaska to help in Tanana. Like the other officers he wore a badge with a black sash across it to honor his fallen fellow officers. 

When he stopped for a few minutes in front of the community store Wednesday evening the people walking by stopped to offer their condolences and tell him about a community fundraiser for the families of the troopers.  

“Everyone I’ve met so far has been real friendly. I appreciate your kind words. All of you guys,” he told them. 

He then politely suggested that one of the well-wishers, a man trying to ride a bicycle, be careful on his ride home.  

Fairbanks-based VPSO coordinator Sgt. Jody Potts said Wednesday she’s also received a warm welcome in Tanana, including so many pies and other food she’s gaining weight.

“One of my main goals is just to have, especially kids, humanize us. I’ve been here playing with the kids. Especially after the SERT team was here a lot of kids are scared of law enforcement.”

SERT, which stands for Special Emergency Response Team, is the trooper version of SWAT team. The SERT team hadn’t been to Tanana in recent memory, but mobilized in Tanana on Thursday evening following the shooting.

Fundraisers, meetings, memorials

The two state troopers who were killed last week were part of a four-member rural unit that serves 23 remote villages. 

In addition to law enforcement, the troopers are known for basketball. As part of a multiagency community building team they played ball in March with Interior Alaska village high school teams. The students consistently beat the cops, including in Tanana.

A basketball tournament and cakewalk fundraiser were organized Tuesday and Wednesday for the families of slain troopers Sgt. Scott Johnson and Gabe Rich. 

Students also signed cards that will be presented at the Fairbanks memorial service Saturday at the Carlson Center. 

It’s graduation week at the Maudrey J. Sommer School this week. Forty-one students attend the kindergarten to 12th-grade public school, among them the younger brother of the alleged shooter, Nathanial Kangas. Three from the school are scheduled to graduate high school and eight will finish eighth grade. 

Superintendent and principal Therese Achton was busy Wednesday organizing a graduation ceremony. The three graduating seniors this year are all boys and she complained that they haven’t been as helpful with decorating for graduation as classes with girls. Among the unique details of planning a remote graduation ceremony was ordering a shipment of helium for balloons, which was supposed to arrive before Wednesday.

The other events of the week made the graduation preparations more difficult.  

“A lot of people have a lot of feelings about what has happened,” she said. 

“The majority of the people I know have expressed solemn regret for what happened to the troopers … They’ve been here in the school playing basketball, they’re part of our community.”

Tanana’s two churches have also been involved. A sign went up outside the town store announcing a memorial gathering and bell ringing on the banks of the Yukon River Saturday at about the time memorial service for Troopers Rich and Johnson starts at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. 

Investigation

Troopers have business in town besides playing basketball and chatting with residents. Another group of troopers is in town investigating the shootings.

On Wednesday two troopers came by Tanana Regional Elders Residence to pick up the keys to execute a search warrant on the Front Street home where the shooting reportedly took place. 

A grand jury in Fairbanks indicted Nathanial Kangas on two counts of first-degree murder on Thursday. Kangas’ father was indicted on charges of evidence tampering and hindering prosecution. 

Capt. Burke Barrick, the trooper commander for the Interior Alaska region, was also in Tanana on Wednesday and had a meeting with community leaders.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.